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Flechsenhar, Aleya; Levine, Seth; Bertsch, Katja (2022): Threat induction biases processing of emotional expressions. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. ISSN 1664-1078

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Threats can derive from our physical or social surroundings and bias the way we perceive and interpret a given situation. They can be signaled by peers through facial expressions, as expressed anger or fear can represent the source of perceived threat. The current study seeks to investigate enhanced attentional state and defensive reflexes associated with contextual threat induced through aversive sounds presented in an emotion recognition paradigm. In a sample of 120 healthy participants, response and gaze behavior revealed differences in perceiving emotional facial expressions between threat and safety conditions: Responses were slower under threat and less accurate. Happy and neutral facial expressions were classified correctly more often in a safety context and misclassified more often as fearful under threat. This unidirectional misclassification suggests that threat applies a negative filter to the perception of neutral and positive information. Eye movements were initiated later under threat, but fixation changes were more frequent and dwell times shorter compared to a safety context. These findings demonstrate that such experimental paradigms are capable of providing insight into how context alters emotion processing at cognitive, physiological, and behavioral levels. Such alterations may derive from evolutionary adaptations necessary for biasing cognitive processing to survive disadvantageous situations. This perspective sets up new testable hypotheses regarding how such levels of explanation may be dysfunctional in patient populations.

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